Old Bailey Online and London Lives Update, March 2018

We’re pleased to announce updates to both Old Bailey Online and London Lives. Key changes are summarised below. The updated XML data will be made available shortly.

One unwanted change is that, following extensive discussion about its feasibility, the map search that was removed from Old Bailey Online in summer 2016 (following a security incident) will not be reinstated. We very much regret this loss of functionality, but an alternative mapping facility is available at Locating London’s Past. A very small number of rarely-used options in the ‘advanced’ keyword search also cannot be reinstated. There are no plans to restore the London Lives wiki, but if anyone contributed material to it that they would like a copy of, we may be be able to retrieve it on request.

Old Bailey Online user workspaces have not been restored in this update, but we still hope to be able to do this at a later date. User accounts and workspaces on London Lives have now been restored, but please note that users will need to sign up for new accounts and it will not be possible to retrieve data from the original workspaces.

I think that all other functionality, on both sites, that was suspended in summer 2016 should now have been reinstated and work as it did before. We’ve tested restored search functions extensively, but there might still be some unexpected bugs given the complexity of some search forms. If you encounter any issues or anything doesn’t work as you think it used to, please let us know, giving as much information as possible.

If you have research needs that go beyond the capabilities of the Old Bailey Online and London Lives websites, we are endeavouring to encourage the use of our XML data and Old Bailey API. I plan to post more about this in the near future.



Changes to the Old Bailey Proceedings Online (version 8.0)

Links to Digital Panopticon Life Archives

Links have been added from individual trial accounts to relevant ‘Life Archives’ of convicts in the Digital Panopticon online resource. This allows you to find out what happened to defendants convicted at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1870.

Access to Old Bailey Online data

We have added a new Access to Old Bailey Online Data page which lists current options for obtaining our text data, in order to encourage re-use. We have also updated the page listing Digital Projects Using Old Bailey Data, which has several examples of ways in which the data has already been used.


We have taken the opportunity to correct a number of bugs in the search functions, textual and tagging errors, and broken links. This was relatively minor compared to the previous update, but users should note that this may mean that sometimes search results will differ slightly. As always, we recommend ensuring that citations include the site version number (indicated in the site footer and ‘Cite this…’) at the time of the search.


Changes to London Lives (version 2.0)

User accounts and workspaces have now been restored. To create a user account see How to Register. Registered users can once again use workspaces, but material that was in workspaces before August 2016 has not been restored.

We’ve added a supplement to the bibliography listing recent publications that cite London Lives as a source.

Correction of a number of errors, including tagging errors and broken links. This means that searches conducted now may produce different results. The main changes are:

  • substantial improvements and corrections to name tagging in the Criminal Registers
  • fixes to broken image links in a number of files
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Suffragettes in the Old Bailey

The Representation of the People Act which was passed on 6 February 1918 for the first time in the UK extended the right to vote to women. Not all women; this was a grudging compromise granted only to those aged over 30 who were property holders (it took another 10 years for women and men to get the vote on equal terms). But nonetheless this was a momentous event in British democratic history, given just how unthinkable and downright laughable the very idea of it had been only a few years earlier.

The arguments for and against were rehearsed a number of times in Parliament from the late 1860s (first being seriously raised by JS Mill during debates about reforms to men’s suffrage in 1867) up to the beginning of World War I without ever getting very far; one of the biggest sticking points was always the fear of allowing women to have any say over the Empire’s military forces. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903 out of frustration at the glacier-like progress being made by the women’s suffrage campaign at the time, and the term “suffragette” was coined to describe this new wing of the movement.

Suffragettes, some more (in)famous than others, made a number of appearances at the Old Bailey before the Proceedings ceased publication in April 1913, charged with arson and other forms of damage to property. We don’t tend to think of suffragettes as ‘terrorists’, but at least some of these were serious offences which could have resulted in injury to people, not just to property, and they certainly saw themselves as militant fighters for a cause: as one of them put it, ‘she wanted to make the two ladies understand that they were at war, and in war even non-combatants had to suffer’. I’ve found thirteen trials, though there might be some I’ve missed. Some were identified by the keyword ‘suffrage’ or ‘suffragette’, some by information in the text of the trial and/or the identity of the defendant.

ALICE CHAPIN, Damage to Property > other, 16th November 1909 (‘interfering with a certain ballot box then in use for the purpose of a certain Parliamentary Election for the Parliamentary Division of Bermondsey, by introducing into the said ballot box divers liquid chemicals’, ‘attempting to destroy a certain packet of ballot papers then in use for the purposes of the said election’ and assaulting an election officer)

ALISON NEILAN, Damage to Property > other, 16th November 1909 (‘interfering with a certain ballot box then in use for the purposes of a certain Parliamentary Election for the Parliamentary Division of Bermondsey, by introducing into the said ballot box divers liquid chemicals’ and ‘attempting to destroy a certain packet of ballot papers then in use for the purposes of the said election’)

EMILY WILDING DAVISON, Damage to Property > arson, 9th January 1912 (‘attempting to place against a Post Office letter-box a match and other dangerous substances; placing in a Post Office letter-box matches and other dangerous substances’)

EILEN PITFIELD, Damage to Property > other, 19th March 1912 (‘feloniously setting fire to a basket containing shavings and other things at the General Post Office’)

EMMELINE PANKHURST, FREDERICK WILLIAM PETHICK LAWRENCE, EMMELINE PETHICK LAWRENCE, Damage to Property > other, 14th May 1912 (‘conspiring together and with one Christabel Pankhurst to unlawfully and maliciously damage and inciting others to unlawfully and maliciously damage certain property, to wit, glass windows, the property of the liege subjects of our Lord the King’)

MAY BILLINGHURST, GRACE MICHELL, Damage to Property > other, 7th January 1913 (‘unlawfully placing in a certain Post Office letter box… a certain deleterious fluid, and thereby injuring the said letter-box and contents’)

LOUISA GAY, Damage to Property > other, 7th January 1913 (‘unlawfully placing in a Post Office letter-box… a certain deleterious fluid, and thereby injuring the said letter-box and its contents’)

MARGARET JAMES, Damage to Property > other, 4th February 1913 (‘pleaded guilty of unlawfully and maliciously damaging divers glass windows’).

ELLA STEVENSON, Miscellaneous > other, 4th March 1913 (“unlawfully sending for transmission by post a postal packet containing a dangerous substance… and placing in a Post Office letter box a dangerous substance likely to injure the said letter box and contents”)

OLIVE WHARRY, Damage to Property > arson, 4th March 1913 (‘feloniously setting fire to a certain building belonging to His Majesty the King, and feloniously setting fire to certain things therein’).

OLIVE HOCKIN, Damage to Property > arson, Damage to Property > other, 1st April 1913 (‘conspiring with others unknown to feloniously set fire to a building and certain matters and things therein… placing in a post office letter-box a certain fluid’)

ISABEL IRVING, Damage to Property > other, 1st April 1913 (‘Unlawfully and maliciously damaging certain glass windows, the property of the Roneo Company, Ltd., to an amount exceeding £5’)

EMMELINE PANKHURST, Damage to Property > other, 1st April 1913 (‘feloniously procuring and inciting a person or persons unknown to commit felony’)

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Exhibition: Criminal Lives 1780-1925

Join the Old Bailey Online team at the launch of the new exhibition Criminal Lives, 1780-1925: Punishing Old Bailey Convicts!

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Digital Panopticon and the London Metropolitan Archives. The launch event is on 14 December 2017; it’s free to attend but space is limited, so please register here.

The exhibition runs at the LMA from 11 December 2017 to 18 May 2018 (free admission).

Between 1700 and 1900, Britain stopped punishing the bodies of convicts and increasingly sought to reform their minds. Exile and forced labour in Australia and incarceration in penitentiaries became the dominant modes of punishment. This exhibition uses the collections of the LMA and the life archives assembled by the AHRC Digital Panopticon project to trace the impact of these punishments on convict lives.

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Old Bailey Online and London Lives Update, 11 August 2016

Regular users may already be aware that following a recent security incident affecting the servers on which the websites are hosted, Old Bailey Online has been operating with extremely limited functionality and London Lives has been unavailable. This is just a brief notice to readers that both are now up and running, and although service is still limited, they have the core functions of keyword and name searches, date filters and reference search for both sites; crime/verdict/punishment search for OBO; document type selection for London Lives (as well as browsing by documents/dates). Document images are now displaying as well.

More advanced or specialised searches (statistics, API, mapping, etc) and user-related features are not yet available, but work is ongoing to reinstate these. [edit: the statistics search is also available again; this can also be used to access some search features (such as defendant gender) that have not yet been restored elsewhere]

We’re very sorry about any ongoing inconvenience the limitations may cause site users; please bear with us as we gradually get back to normal.

However, as functions are re-introduced, they may be buggy at first and if you find something on the sites doesn’t seem to be working properly, please don’t hesitate to get in touch: you can email oldbailey@sheffield.ac.uk or send a tweet to @oldbaileyonline.

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An Ancestor in Crime

This is a guest post by Aoife O Connor, one of the PhD students on our partner project, the Digital Panopticon, who is researching the impact of the digitisation of historical crime records. 

Digitisation has opened up archival records to entirely new audiences, eager audiences. Material which sat on a shelf from one end of the year to the other, never or rarely requested, is now viewed and used by thousands of researchers across the globe. As part of the Digital Panopticon Project I am researching how family historians and genealogists use crime records in their research. How have the things they have discovered impacted the direction of their work, the story they tell and how do they integrate a criminal ancestor into their family’s story?

As anyone using the Old Bailey Online knows, criminal records are one of the best sources for learning about non-elite lives. They are richly detailed records containing everything from physical descriptions of prisoners to wonderful contextual details. There are a wide range of crime records available both in archives and online. At the opposite end of the court system from the Old Bailey there are the records of the Petty Sessions. From these records local communities can be reconstructed as the inhabitants go about their daily lives, paying dog licences, liquor licences, and yes, being fined for allowing their cattle to wander into a neighbour’s field. From newspaper court reports we hear the voices of ordinary men and women as they give evidence. We learn where people lived and who their neighbours were, the geography and social structure of villages and towns come into view. Infanticide records, saddening and shocking as they are, reveal the moral pressures of their times. Prison records often give physical descriptions include height and weight, and distinctive markings such as tattoos, and later, a photograph.

Genealogists have long recognised the value of crime records. Three of the major guides written for family historian were published before the records were digitised.[1] However, whereas previously genealogists often relied on family lore, or the discovery of an ancestor in an institution in a census record to lead them to their ancestor’s criminal records, it is now possible for a family historian to stumble upon literally dozens of ‘criminal’ ancestors. Descendants of victims, witnesses, and judiciary can also learn valuable information about their ancestors’ lives. I am also exploring how genealogists convey potentially difficult personal heritage to living family members. Equally I want to hear from those who are proud of their ‘criminal’ ancestors, and those who discovered more about their ancestors because of a crime, perhaps they were a witness or a magistrate. Being some of the best records for non-elites records associated with crime are particularly invaluable in Australia and Ireland where traditional genealogical records such as censuses are virtually non-existent. But does this mean family historians in those countries see those ancestors primarily as criminals or do they view crime records in a more neutral light? So many questions!

To help with my research I am hosting a number of short surveys on my website. If you have discovered an ancestor in the Old Bailey Records (or any crime related record on or offline) I would appreciate your taking the time to take one (or all!) of the surveys:


[1] Hawkings, D. (1987) Bound for Australia: A Guide to the Records of Transported Convicts and Early Settlers; Wade, S. (2009) Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians; Hawkings, D. (1998) Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales.

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The London Lives book is nearly here…


The new book by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker is due out in August 2015 and now taking pre-orders: London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City is the outcome of several years’ work on the London Lives project.

The blurb:

London Lives is a fascinating new study which exposes, for the first time, the lesser-known experiences of eighteenth-century thieves, paupers, prostitutes and highwaymen. It charts the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Londoners who found themselves submerged in poverty or prosecuted for crime, and surveys their responses to illustrate the extent to which plebeian Londoners influenced the pace and direction of social policy. Calling upon a new body of evidence, the book illuminates the lives of prison escapees, expert manipulators of the poor relief system, celebrity highwaymen, lone mothers and vagrants, revealing how they each played the system to the best of their ability in order to survive in their various circumstances of misfortune. In their acts of desperation, the authors argue that the poor and criminal exercised a profound and effective form of agency that changed the system itself, and shaped the evolution of the modern state.

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Old Bailey Online Update March 2015

Our latest site update (version 7.2) is now live!* The main news for site users to be aware of – especially those who use the statistical functions – is that we’ve done a lot of work correcting data errors.

Data corrections

The most substantial are:

  • A number of related issues with the tagging of husbands and wives (in 1674-1834 sessions) have been corrected:
    • Correction of a tagging error that assigned a number of male defendants the occupational title of “wife”. [note: there are still some male victims tagged as wives, which will hopefully be fixed in the next update]
    • The removal of erroneous defendant status tagging from about 800 husbands.
    • Correction of the mis-tagging of a number of wives’ surnames as “his” (from “his wife”). [I think there may still be some errors of this type lurking in the database, and again will try to complete cleaning these in the next update]
  • About 100 mistranscribed defendant ages have been corrected. Many defendants previously tagged as 80 and above are now correctly listed as being in their 20s or 30s.
  • About 850 genders previously listed as “indeterminate” have now been correctly labelled as male or female. In some cases the original “indeterminate” tag resulted from a mistranscription of a forename, and these mistranscriptions have been corrected.
  • Wrongly dated sessions have been corrected:
    • The date of the 13 June 1836 session of the court was previously wrongly listed as 13 July 1836, owing to a mistake on the original title page.
    • The date of the 30 May 1770 session was wrongly listed as 30 June 1770.
    • Correction of these errors has necessitated changing all trial references for those sessions, so for example, t18360713-1634 is now t18360613-1634. If users search for the previous trial numbers they will receive an error notice and be advised to correct the reference.

Phew! If you’re in the process of doing research that may be affected by any of this you should probably review your data now. If you might be affected by it but are unable to revise your work I’d strongly recommend that you ensure that all citations include the previous version number (7.1).

In addition to the substantial changes above there are about 100 individual data corrections submitted by site users. We very much appreciate that users go to the trouble of doing this for us. However, not all corrections submitted will appear on the site. There are a number of main reasons for this:

  1.  We have limited time available for corrections so we prioritise certain errors – tagging of names, offences and outcomes, in particular. Errors in transcription outside those priorities are much less likely to make the cut.
  2. Conversely, a few corrections always turn out to be unusually awkward and time-consuming (this can be particularly true of problems with images) and have to wait for a later update.
  3. We only correct errors in our transcriptions or tagging. Some corrections submitted by users turn out to be errors in the original text, which we can’t incorporate into our data – even though they’re often the most interesting corrections of all! (I have been thinking about what we might do about this some time in the future…)

Other corrections and fixes

Most of these were also sent in by site users – again, always much appreciated. The main ones to note are:

  • Missing page images for sessions 1674-c.1715 have been restored (hooray!)
  • Some problems with links in user workspaces have been fixed
  • An inaccuracy in the API documentation has been corrected.

Finally, there was also some work done updating the site server and backend code. We think this has all been thoroughly tested and any issues ironed out, but if you encounter any problems with the site please do let us know. You can leave a comment below, on twitter @OldBaileyOnline or email oldbailey@sheffield.ac.uk.

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Locating Lascars: The Old Bailey Online and the Maritime World of the Indian Ocean

CitC’s first guest post of 2015 is by Ian Petrie, on teaching with Old Bailey Online in combination with other digital tools.

In spring 2013 I first taught my course “Merchants, Saints, Slaves & Sojourners: The Worlds of the Indian Ocean”, an introductory class offered through the South Asia Studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. On the day that we read Janet Ewald’s article[1] on the movement of subalterns across the Indian Ocean in the age of empire, I brought in a handful of cases from the Old Bailey Online which featured lascars (Asian sailors), as complementary primary sources to read in class. Our reading of them was rushed, as could have been expected, and while the students seemed reasonably engaged by the material — and I was absolutely enamored with it — I considered the exercise a missed opportunity.

As I prepared to teach the course for the second time, last autumn, I knew I wanted to do something more substantive with the Old Bailey cases involving lascars. A major portion of the assessment in the course derived from four small research projects, and I elected to make one of them “Locating Lascars”, whereby each student would choose a case to research and present, over the span of two weeks.

On the first day of class, I wanted to get students started working with texts, images and maps and brought in a sample of each. My text sample was this case from OBO, which immediately engaged the students and we had a good conversation about the constellation of people represented in it, from the plaintiff (prosecutor) “John Morgan”, a Bengali Muslim, who had accompanied a “tyger” to Britain for his employer, Sir George Pigot, the former Governor of Madras, to the Irish defendants (who were represented in testimony as “speaking Irish” to each other). When I posted the link on Facebook, a friend pointed out that the case had been written about by historian Michael Fisher.[2]

Screen Shot OBO Annotation Studio

Weeks later, we read an article of Fisher’s on lascars and a related piece by Amitav Ghosh.[3] That day, I revisited the case from the first day, augmenting our original reactions to it with Fisher’s analysis and a related painting by George Stubbs. My commentary on the case was presented via Annotation Studio, a site produced by MIT to facilitate collaborative close-reading of texts. I wanted to introduce my students to the site and see how they thought it handled, although my ultimate use of it was not consistent with the designers’ aims.

The following class, each student had selected a case, and I had imported the print-friendly versions of them into Annotation Studio. We met in a new “Collaborative Classroom” in our library, which permitted us to project everyone’s case (I had only 5 students!) onto the walls, which are whiteboards. Everyone then circulated, reading each other’s cases (or part thereof) and making notes on the text (on the wall) – questions, key words, points of interest or ambiguity. Hence my “misuse” of Annotation Studio — it’s designed to facilitate such commenting online — but I wanted the physicality and novelty of getting up, moving around and writing on the walls. The students seemed to enjoy this exercise, and I think it sharpened their sense of how to approach the research for their own case, both via the input of their peers and the reading of a selection of other cases.

SAST 169 marking up cases

A week later, we returned to the collaborative classroom and the students presented on their cases, having posted their annotations in advance for us to look at before class. Those were then projected on one screen while the students briefly presented their findings — including relevant images, and maps made using the interactive historical maps of locatinglondon.org or Stanford’s Palladio.

The students’ findings were diverse and stimulating. One delved into a recent doctoral dissertation[4] to contextualize the shipboard violence meted out to lascars by a British captain. Another was delighted to make sense of her case in light of the Great Dock Strike of 1889. In all instances they investigated terms and information that were required to contextualize the cases — the parts of ships, the value of personal property in the early 18th century, and details of the social and economic history of London in the background of the cases (what did a trimmer do?).

SAST marking cases 2

I think the students would have been happy to keep working on their cases, or having found a theme that interested them, go back into the collection and find related cases to build up a more robust understanding, and I’ll consider making the Old Bailey Online assignment a more prominent part of the course since it went so well. When I told one of my students that I’d been asked to write this blog post, she said “Be sure to tell them how much we enjoyed this. It was one of the best assignments I’ve had in college”.

Ian Petrie, Center for Teaching & Learning, University of Pennsylvania (@icpetrie)


[1] Janet Ewald, “Crossers of the Sea: Slaves, Freedman, and Other Migrants in the Northwestern Indian Ocean, c. 1750-1914,” American Historical Review 105 (2000): 69-91.

[2] Michael H. Fisher, Shompa Lahiri & Shinder S. Thandi, A South-Asian History of Britain (Westport, CT, 2007)

[3] Michael H. Fisher, “Working across the Seas: Indian Maritime Labourers in India, Britain, and in Between, 1600-1857,” International Review of Social History 51 (2006): 21–45; Amitav Ghosh, “Of Fanas and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail,” Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 25 (June 21, 2008): 56–62.

[4] Ceri-Anne Fidler, “Lascars c. 1850-1950: The Lives and Identities of Indian Seafarers in Imperial Britain and India,” (unpub PhD dissertation, Cardiff University, 2011) [accessed at orca.cf.ac.uk/55477/1/U516542.pdf]

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Unravelling a person’s criminal history through the archives

 A guest post by David J. Vaughan

As with any historical event, rediscovering the truth behind a Victorian crime and its key protagonists requires access to as many archives as might survive. When the main character’s journey takes them from murderess to death row prisoner, penal servant to asylum inmate, its availability – and perversely, relative scarcity – soon becomes the be-all-and-end-all of the researcher’s task.

This post looks at each of the social and administrative stations the criminal and her case encountered; how the vagaries of each affected what material was produced for the modern day researcher to discover; and how each directly influenced the biography and criminal history of a given individual.

*The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer - available here and here

*The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer – available here and here

A Case History: Celestina Sommer, London 1856

Celestina Sommer gained international notoriety after murdering her illegitimate daughter in the cellar of their Islington home. Her unrelenting tale of sorrow, infanticide, capital punishment and an unchecked descent into madness, paints a vivid picture of the darker elements of institutional Victorian England – at exactly the time when organisations and social administrations were changing, for ever.

Digging deep into the surviving archives a century and a half later, The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer* has emerged as the first (as far as I know) full and accurate retelling of one of the period’s most notorious but since inexplicably forgotten killers and the awful crime she committed.

Researching the truth/dismissing the lies: the vagaries of institutions and the records they created

Putting flesh on the bones of both Celestina Sommer the woman and her case required availability of records from before, during and after the central, horrific event. The breakthrough came with the online transcript of her Old Bailey trial, and marked the beginning of the period during which she ‘justified’ the numerous, extensive records that were created about her short, eventful life.[1]

1. The Proceedings/Old Bailey Online/London Lives – These “quasi-official” records of court proceedings (trials) at the Old Bailey are an invaluable source of information and social data. From their advent in 17th century – more as a popular account than an authoritative record – were soon seen to be the only means of accessing events in the Central Criminal Court outside the courtroom. The survival – and digitisation – of the trial of Celestina Sommer (t18560407-457) gave arguably the clearest opportunity to unravel this woman’s crime and, by extension, to delve into her short yet eventful life story.

A word or two of warning – trying variations of spellings, especially of names, was essential. Celestina was recorded as Celestika [to be rectified], so that it took several attempts to locate her records on the otherwise faultless Old Bailey Online website. Furthermore, as with all research that uses primary and secondary data (shouldn’t it all?), everything was double-checked and verified, while bearing in mind any subjectivity inherent in any written text. The commercial reality behind the original Proceedings meant very little of the defendant’s perspective was heard, making it far more salacious if less equivocal!

Finally, no matter how exciting it was to find what I was looking for, I was never misled into thinking there were no other records – accounts or official documents – including those that may not survive. For example, Celestina faced two magistrates hearings and two Old Bailey appearances. Only records of the main hearing were found.

2. Police records, from the earliest days of the Metropolitan Force, proved scarce in Celestina Sommer’s case. Despite their central role in the unfolding drama, the police archives failed to provide even scant information about the crime or the accused under investigation.

Clerkenwell Police Court plans 1843 detail

Plan of Clerkenwell Police Court, where Celestina Sommer’s journey through the justice system and into the archives began

3. At Magistrates hearings – in Celestina’s case at Clerkenwell Police Court (not to be confused with its police station namesake) – no formal transcripts were likely to have been made. Instead, press reports (full of subjectivity and prejudice) were relied on and, even in the arguably more bowdlerized 19th century, their practices and writings were far from reliable. For example, they prematurely reported the “facts from” the second magistrate’s hearing before the hearing was held. Sub judice, indeed!

4. Coroner’s Inquest reports – Like the magistrates, but for different reasons, very few CI reports survive at London Metropolitan Archives; just one (local) newspaper account was discovered which, in truth, was of even less value than those of the magistrate’s hearings…

5. Parliament – Celestina Sommer’s criminal ‘career’ received great political and legal attention – both for her act and for her subsequent treatment by the Victorian social system(s). That she featured in several debates on crime, insanity and the death penalty, in both Houses, is testament to the uncertainty surrounding her treatment, and her infamy. Transcripts of these debates were retrieved from Hansard et al; while comments, both favourable and hostile, were delivered through the writings of penal reformers like Alfred Dymond, Secretary of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment.

6. Prison – Her prison records are equally as limited: the registers captured little more than her physical and legal attributes – name, age, marital status, ability to read or write, crime, conviction and sentence. Yet, by augmenting this limited primary data with interpretative secondary sources – such as Dixon’s London Prisons (1850) and Mayhew and Binny’s Criminal Prisons of London (1862) – it was still possible to build a reliable picture of Victorian penal life. Elements of greatest import to the Victorians – those of religion, education and, crucially, prescribed gender roles – all received undue attention in the records of the institutions and their undertakings.

Yard - Brixton Prison

Women prisoners exercising in the yard at Brixton Prison

7. Fisherton House Lunatic Asylum – In the early to mid-Victorian age, with its uncertain understanding of insanity and its role as an exculpatory factor for criminal acts (viz. the insanity plea), a diagnosis of the defendant’s mind was fiercely debated and his or her future precariously balanced. The political writings from both sides of the debate are now all we have to go on – along with modern day academic assessments by people like Roger Smith and Andrew Scull.

As soon as Celestina Sommer’s insanity was eventually acknowledged, she was transferred to Britain’s largest criminal lunatic asylum, near Salisbury Wilts. Records there, though limited to her medical history and records of administration, allowed a detailed portrayal of her final days on earth and deductions about her underlying conditions.

8. The press – As already inferred, detailed comment and passing references alike were often subjective and derogatory. For example, Sommer was spared the gallows because she was German (actually not, though she was married to a Prussian immigrant; a woman; a pretty woman; any other spurious reason the reader can think of! The truths and inaccuracies within this particular source were recognized when comparing the scores of articles and reports found within a multitude of surviving and/or digitized titles.


From the execution of her crime, to her final demise within the confines of a lunatic asylum, compassion for Celestina Sommer’s mental health was seldom forthcoming. No reference to any discussion/debate on her possible madness was found, despite the prevalent taste for insanity and criminal lunacy in this age of social reform. In consequence, a huge slice of the peculiar circumstances behind her experiences was potentially overlooked. Nevertheless, through careful and thorough research of all known available sources, facts were unearthed, verified and used.

Primary and secondary source material may have its depth and accuracy devalued by an inherent lack of hard evidence, hidden agenda and ample rhetoric, but by working, dare I say, systemically, I was at least able to retell her story by judiciously piecing together the records – and rejecting the rhetoric – from her short and tragic life.

As a professional historian and author, David’s first published book is due out this summer: (Bloody British History – The History Press). His full-length narrative non-fiction title, ‘The Secret Life of Celestina Sommer, Victorian child killer’, has been self-published on Amazon Kindle etc.

Other published works include:

For further details:

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“She speaks with much dexterity”: the life of a female forger in early 18th century London

"Old Woman Eating" by Quiringh Van Brekelenkam (Google Art Project)

“Old Woman Eating” by Quiringh Van Brekelenkam (Google Art Project)

Leah Wilkinson was described as a ‘notorious old offender’ by the Navy in 1712. She had a long career as a forger and con-woman – with known criminal offences being committed over a 30 year duration. She made a living by forging wills and letters of attorney for seamen, and was able to carry on this criminal career because of her powers of persuasion and language, undeterred by spells on the pillory.

Although biographical details for Leah are few, from my research, it looks like she was born Leah Lowe into a Quaker family in London. She married Samuel Wilkinson in 1688, and they had at least one son.

The first time Leah is recorded as appearing at the Old Bailey is on 3 December 1695. She was accused of forging seven letter of attorney and wills, purporting to have been written by various seamen. By forging these documents, she had managed to obtain £200 – around £16,000 or £17,000 in today’s money. She was lucky on this occasion, being acquitted by the court – not because she was found to be innocent, but because there was a mistake in the written indictment of her charge, and so the case could not go ahead [1].

Seamen were targeted by Leah because they were able to appoint attorneys to receive their pay in their absence. These letters of attorney could therefore be forged by those hoping to obtain the seamen’s wages – with them at sea, they would not learn of the deception for some time.

Another way to get money – as Leah did – was to add a clause to the letter of attorney, purporting to be a will made by the seamen, whereby ‘they make their attorneys their executors and give the whole estate or great part thereof, the seamen being ignorant’. [2] If the seaman did then die at sea, his relations could end up penniless as a result of these forgeries.

Leah didn’t appear before the Old Bailey again until 1727 – but this does not mean she lived a virtuous life until then. She appears in other records, and was clearly up to her old tricks. In fact, she even forged a letter of attorney from her own mother.

In April 1696, Edward Whitaker wrote to the Navy Board on behalf of John King, a scrivener. King’s job was to make letters of attorney for seamen, but the Navy Board had ordered that ‘no such letters made by him will be looked on as good’ any more. This was as a result of having been paid to forge a letter of attorney for Anne Lowe – Leah’s mother, who had died in 1694. However, Whitaker noted, although King admitted the offence, he had never been prosecuted for the offence – and, ‘as he could be useful’, Whitaker recommended the Navy Board re-employ him. [3]

But Whitaker was clearly aware of Leah Wilkinson’s involvement in this offence. Two months later, in June 1696, he again wrote to the Navy Board, detailing forged documents supposedly from three people – a Captain Leake, former commander of the Sally Rose ship; Katherine Lovelace; and one Anne Lowe, deceased. This offence involved money being charged on ‘wrongly received’ seamen’s tickets and pilot bills, with the fraud amounting to about £99 – around £7,000 today. [4]

And in November that year, Whitaker had to write again, warning the Navy Board that ‘Leah Wilkinson, daughter of Anne Low[sic] deceased’ was still employing agents to receive money on her behalf, by naming them in forged letters of attorney. This letter shed light on Leah’s criminal habits – she had learned them from her mother Anne.

William Rycroft, a seaman on the Victory ship, had returned to England and gone looking for his owed wages. On him making inquiries, it emerged that in 1692, a false letter of attorney had been honoured, and Anne Lowe had received Rycroft’s wages as a result.

Two years later, Anne Lowe had been paid wages due to Thomas Pettit, a seaman on the Hannibal. Whitaker was rightly concerned that Leah and her agents were continuing their scam, and asked that any requests for power of attorney made by Leah’s agents, a Mr Harmon and an Emeroy Solesby, be stopped until they could be fully examined. [5]

Extract from Richard Burn's The Justice of the Peace showing later legislation and punishments for the crimes committed by Leah Wilkinson (image c/o Nell Darby)

Extract from Richard Burn’s The Justice of the Peace (1776)
on the crimes committed by Leah Wilkinson
(image c/o Nell Darby)

Forgery was an offence both in common law and by statute; at common law, forgery was ‘an offence in falsely and fraudulently making or altering any manner of record, or any other authentic matter of a publick nature; as a will and the like’ [6]. Certain classes of forgery were felonies without benefit of clergy, but luckily for Leah, at the time she committed her crimes, they did not come under this category.

However, the forging of letters of attorney and wills of seamen was recognized as a growing ‘evil practice’ by the end of the 17th century. Legislation was passed in 1697 to tackle the problem.

Not only did the forging of seamen’s letters of attorney become a distinct offence, punishable with a £200 fine – to be split between the king and the prosecutor – and imprisonment until the fine was paid, but the act made it illegal to produce a will AND a letter of attorney for a seaman on the same paper or parchment. If both documents were on the same paper, they would not ‘be good or available in Law to any intent or purpose’. [7]

There is no mention of Leah for the next few years, but there is no evidence that she stopped offending – just that, perhaps, she was more careful for a while. But in January 1712, the London Gazette reported that she was up to her old tricks. Describing her as ‘a notorious Old Offender’ – one has to feel a bit of sympathy with her for that epithet – the Navy Office reported that she had just been convicted at the Old Bailey for publishing a forged Bill of Sale or Assignment for the wages of a dead seaman, John Godfrey.

The Navy Pay Office, from a drawing by G Shepherd, 1816 Leah was put in the pillory outside here.

The Navy Pay Office
(from a drawing by G Shepherd, 1816)
Leah was put in the pillory outside here.

She was sentenced to stand on the pillory in front of the Navy Pay Office, which was on the corner of Great Winchester Street and Old Broad Street in London, and to stay in prison for a month. Her conviction and punishment was ‘advertised for deterring others from committing the like Offences’. [8]

But not even a spell in the pillory could stop Leah; presumably she was imprisoned for being unable to pay the statutory fine for her conviction, which suggests that she did not get to profit very much from her crimes. Perhaps, brought up by her mother to forge documents, she was unable, or reluctant, to earn a living any other way.

So in 1727, the last mention of Leah came. She appeared at the Old Bailey on a charge of drawing up a counterfeit order to receive the pay of another dead seaman – William Bar. It was noted at her trial that she ‘was one of those vile Persons, who makes a Practice of drawing up false Powers, and Letters of Administration, and thereby cheating and defrauding the Widows of such Seamen as die in the Voyage.’ This trial report gives us the best picture we have of the elderly Leah, and shows how the court view a forger who was also female.

Leah spoke at her trial in her own defence. The report stated, ‘She pleaded a great deal of Ignorance, Innocence and Incapacity, yet she talk’d of Administrations, Probates, and broad Seals, with as much Dexterity as if she had been educated at Doctor’s Commons.’ [9]

This was a self-educated woman, who, through her long criminal career, had learned a lot about the law and legal process. She played on the stereotypes of womanhood and her age, yet her proudly-displayed knowledge of probate put paid to her claims of ignorance.

Unsurprisingly, the jury found her guilty on this first count, and also on a charge of ‘persuading Margaret Smith to personate and take upon her’ the name of William Bar’s widow, in order to claim the £17 wages that had been due to her after her husband’s death. Leah was again ordered to stand in the Broad Street pillory, and given a longer prison sentence – 12 months, this time. [10]

In the end, Leah’s criminal career was probably curtailed by death rather than repentance; it is likely that she died in 1729, being buried in the non-conformist burial ground at Bunhill Fields. Her career had a negative impact on many seamen’s families; but it is impossible not to feel a little bit of admiration at this woman who learned about the law from a somewhat unconventional perspective.

Nell Darby is a PhD student at the University of Northampton, researching women’s involvement in the summary process during the long eighteenth-century. She blogs at criminalhistorian.com and is on Twitter @nelldarby


1: Old Bailey Proceedings Online, December 1695, trial of Leah Wilkinson (t16951203-35).

2: ‘William III, 1697-8: An Act for the better preventing the imbezlement of His Majesties Stores of War and preventing Cheats Frauds and Abuses in paying Seamens Wage (chapter XLI. Rot. Parl. 9 Gul. III, p.7 n.1)’ in John Raithby (ed), Statutes of the Realm, volume 7: 1695-1701)

3: The National Archives, ref ADM 106/498/126, 11 April 1696

4: The National Archives, ref ADM 106/498/186, 5 June 1696

5: The National Archives, ref ADM 106/497/207, 26 November 1696

6: Richard Burn, The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (13th edition, 1776), Vol 2, p.208

7: 9&10 William III c.41, as detailed in ‘William III, 1697-8: An Act for the better preventing the imbezlement of His Majesties Stores of War and preventing Cheats Frauds and Abuses in paying Seamens Wage (chapter XLI. Rot. Parl. 9 Gul. III, p.7 n.1)’ in John Raithby (ed), Statutes of the Realm, volume 7: 1695-1701)

8: The London Gazette, 20 January 1712

9: Old Bailey Proceedings Online, trial of Leah Wilkinson (t17270412-48), 12 April 1727

10: Old Bailey Proceedings Online, April 1727, punishment summary for Leah Wilkinson (s17270412-1), 12 April 1727

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